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This article by LucyAnn Dunlap was prepared for the March 8, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Bringing the Playwright on Stage

Celebrating its 20th year, Passage Theater in Trenton is playing its

part in the revitalization of the city, as well as providing a theater

home to a number of playwrights who want to see their brand new plays

professionally produced in a space away from the scrutiny of the New

York press. The bonus for Passage audiences is the opportunity to be

the first to see exciting work by some of the best emerging and

established writers. The theater is also noted for its visionary work

with young people of the community. Artistic director June Ballinger

pioneered the State Street Project for Passage, built on the model of

a similar project she had developed in New York City. "Performing arts

can give young people an arena to find a feeling of success that,

whether they continue as performers or writers or not, can translate

into feeling good about themselves in life."

Passage Theater lives and performs in the historic Mill Street

Playhouse. Their anniversary season continues with a production of

"Love To All, Lorraine," a one-woman play inspired by the life of

playwright Lorraine Hansberry, written and performed by Elizabeth Van

Dyke. In performance Tuesday, March 9, through Sunday, March 26, it is

presented in association with the National Black Touring Circuit

founded by Woodie King Jr. as part of the nationally-known New Federal

Theater.

Ballinger promises that Van Dyke transforms herself on stage to give

the audience a portrait of the artist who, with "Raisin in the Sun" in

1959, became the youngest playwright and the first African American to

have a play produced on Broadway.

Capping the season will be a new play by Trenton native William

Mastrosimone, "A Stone Carver," May 4 through 28. Both plays mark

returns to Passage Theater. Van Dyke performed here in a production

during the 2000 season, portraying another important African American

writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in a work by Laurence Holder. Mastrosimone

has premiered a number of his plays at Passage, most recently "The

Afghan Women" during the 2003 season.

Once a busy actress working on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional

theatres, and on television, Ballinger married and moved to Princeton

and admits that she slept in Princeton but spent every day in New

York. Little by little, this began to change. Part of the change was

precipitated by the birth of her son; she didn’t want to be away from

him for extended periods. One day, a friend was performing at Passage

Theater, and she made her first trip to Trenton to see the play and

was amazed by her discovery: "It’s a city. And so close."

Beginning with the youth project, she became more and more involved

with Passage, eventually accepting the job of artistic director.

Working with her board of directors, she has built a financially

viable arts organization that has gone from a $135,000 budget to a

$500,000 operating budget with no deficits hanging over them. It

doesn’t hurt that Ballinger’s husband is a former member of the

McKinsey Management Consulting Firm and has lent a bit of his

expertise.

Always wanting to present new plays that celebrate the resilience of

the human spirit, Ballinger has recently started looking in unusual

places for new writers and has found a number of poets whom she has

lured into writing for the theater. And she reconnected with avant

garde theater artist Ann Bogart, who was a college chum, to talk about

"ways to expand the horizons of her theater audience and build a

creative community enriched by new and varied theatrical fare while

celebrating experiences we all have in common that transcend culture

and race."

Van Dyke, who spoke to me from Lowell, Massachusetts, where she was

appearing in a production of "Intimate Apparel," says she is delighted

to return to Passage Theater, as she considers it one of her "artistic

homes." She has only praise for Ballinger, whom she describes as "a

wonderful human being who has a passion for the community, for the

arts, and for diversity."

As a young woman bound for college, Van Dyke traveled east from Los

Angeles, where she had lived with her mother, to New York University

to begin her theater studies. Since then she has made New York City

her home base. After earning an MFA, she has continued to study with

different teachers and still has sessions with noted drama coach Alice

Spivak.

Ballinger describes Van Dyke’s performances as mystical in that she

seems to be totally transformed into the character she is portraying,

whether it is Zora Neale Hurston or Lorraine Hansberry. "I’m an only

child," says Van Dyke. Though Hansberry was not an only child, "the

aloneness in the solitude of her writing, I found fascinating. And

she’s so smart – not that I’m nearly that brilliant – but as an

actress, I was often in my head."

She credits acting teacher Sanford Meisner for setting her free. "All

acting methods are the same, just articulated in different ways, but

Meisner had a different approach." She says he got her "totally out of

my head. He helped me to realize that there is no right or wrong way

in acting, only more effective and less effective. Human behavior will

do any and everything." She describes her current technique as

"totally organic." Her intense commitment to a spiritual life that

prompts her to annual trips to India also plays a part in her "method"

of performance.

Van Dyke is a very private person. She will not tell me anything about

her husband, only that she has one, nor the date she graduated from

college. Instead she asks me when I decided it was OK to tell my age.

She is also very protective of her subject matter. When she was

writing "Love To All, Lorraine," she had the unique opportunity to

read Hansberry’s diaries. But when I ask her for any piece of

information gleaned from them, she says, "I don’t know that I should

say." And wouldn’t. However, she does admit that the surprising

information in the diaries did help her to see Hansberry as a real

person, not as her earlier romanticized vision.

Van Dyke has worked consistently as an actress, always remaining

steadfast in her devotion to the theater with forays on

east-coast-based television, like the New York actor’s mainstay, the

Law and Order empire, and for a time playing a recurring role on the

"All My Children." "I never did the LA thing," she says.

As a way to create an acting job for herself, she began writing "Love

To All, Lorraine" 15 years ago, and has been re-working and re-writing

over the years. It was seen for the first time at the New Federal

Theater, then later at the American Place Theater, both in New York

City. She has toured her one-woman play to theaters and campuses

across the country.

She has found performing as Hansberry actually easier for her because

"she’s a human being who’s lived, rather than a character invented by

a playwright. The answers to an actor’s questions are right here – on

the record." No searching the script for clues about the character as

one would in portraying a part in a Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Mamet

play. "Biographical information exists. Sociological information

exists." And, after all, she did write the script herself.

Van Dyke says: "This is not a period piece; it always has resonance."

She feels that the political unrest of today makes the life of

Hansberry even more relevant. She was living at a time when all around

her activists were fighting for civil rights." Van Dyke says that

Hansberry was actually very upset, feeling that her life of social

events, television interviews, and association with the "smart set" of

the New York intelligentsia, and then her declining health, kept her

from being as active in the civil rights movement as she would have

liked to have been. In "Love to All, Lorraine," Van Dyke has Hansberry

leaving a civil rights meeting upset with herself because her

"articulation has been lessened by the pain killers" that she has

taken to help her through her cancer symptoms. Yet with her one major

successful play, "A Raisin in the Sun," exemplifying the universal

theme of search for freedom and a better life, she certainly made an

impressive gift not only to the American theater, but also to the

African American experience in this country. But she didn’t live to

really see that. Hansberry died in 1965 at the too-early age of 35.

Van Dyke hopes that audiences will be inspired by the life of Lorraine

Hansberry as she has been. "I pray that the experience in the theater

will be transcendent, special for each person, that you will discover

a person who you like, who opens your heart. Especially in this day

and age of divisiveness, we need inspiration. There are so many ills

in our society."

Love to All, Lorraine, Thursday, March 9 to Sunday, March 26, Passage

Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton.

New play written by and featuring Elizabeth Van Dyke based on the life

of playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry. $25. 609-392-0766.


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